“I watch the ripples change their size /
but never leave the stream”
~Changes, David Bowie
So we’re still building, still amassing. Two hours into the sophomore season of The Wire and it’s pretty clear that creator David Simon is spinning a delicate Baltimore web of characters and events – but we’re only catching glimpses of his final design . If you love the show, you know we’re in no rush, that these things take time, and it will all add up eventually.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try make sense of it now. In the season opener, “Ebb Tide”, Simon began moving his chess pieces into position: the working class stevedores, Major Rawl’s BPB homicide unit, the flailing Barksdale gang, and 14 dead bodies. No one was particularly hopeful; everyone was kind of a mess.
In this week’s episode, Simon hones in on three feuds that are the first dominoes in his cause-and-effect narrative structure: McNulty v. Major Rawls, Frank Sabotka v. Major Valcheck, and Wee-Bey v. Officer Tilghman. These three personal vendettas are the stones Simon casts into Baltimore’s tumultuous waters – and it appears they’re all going to cause bigger waves than intended. This is “Collateral Damage”.
We pick up where we left off. 13 dead bodies and still no institution of law wants anything to do with them. Last week, McNulty dredged up a DB that the BPD pinned on county, before he read some maps and put it back on the city. This time, Officer Russell, the unfortunate Port Authority officer who found the dead women, ends up stuck with them. Customs and CID are both hands-off, deeming it a tragic accident rather than a crime. They might be right, but we, as viewers, know the Greek mob has something fishy up its sleeves, and so does Frank Sabotka.
Sabotka acrimoniously heads to “Little Johnny’s Restaurant and Carry-Out” to confront the Greeks about corpses in his can; his nephew, Nicky, fears the confrontation: “You don’t have to do this, anything you’re gonna say I already said to Spiros.” But Frank wants a face-to-face: “Did you call him a Greek asshole?” Inside, it’s revealed the Greeks were waiting for their man to come off the boat, he took too long, they couldn’t move the container, and the girls suffocated. Nicky calms Frank down a bit, and Spiros assures Frank that they’re looking into reasons.
There’s a ominous tension to the scenes at Little Johnny’s – Nicky is afraid of the Greeks (so we are, too) Spiros casually smokes along to Frank’s seemingly relentless diatribe, and the scene is book-ended by the appearance of the old man, and then the revelation that he is The Greek, commanding his empire from within the confines of “Little Johnny’s”. More on him in a bit.
Avon Barksdale, similarly, is confined but still playing puppet master. After his sister Brianna urges him to take better care of her son Dee, and informs him about just how bad business is, he sends Stringer to Atlanta to visit Dee’s baby mama and kid. “After all he’s done for us, he needs to be cared for,” Brianna says about Dee. She’s right. Dee is now using drugs and unwilling to chat with Avon; when we recall his desire for a clean break from crime and a fresh start “anywhere” it’s easy to see why.
A lot of the Barksdale Bunch’s plot this episode feels short and inconsequential- like Boadie’s subplot last week – but one scene is highly enjoyable, and clearly sets some pieces in motion. Officer Tilghman, a prison guard, wants revenge against Wee-Bey for killing his cousin (it’s unclear whether or not one of many Barksdale killings he falsely confessed to last season). Tilghman raids Bey’s cell and incites a hilariously furious reaction: “Nah, nah, you see, they’s plastic! They got little motors and all, man!,” he says, defending his false fish tank, a little piece of home he managed to get smuggled into the cell block. Apparently, the prison guards do plenty of smuggling, and Avon thinks he could put pressure on on Tilghman, who, as Bey relays, does plenty of himself. Tilghman doesn’t give Avon a second look – I guess other measures will have to be taken. But that’s for next week.
These early episodes really do make you realize why The Wire was almost cancelled a time or two – even now, TV audiences rarely stomach this much setup. I can’t imagine what the reaction was like back then.
Alright, onto Frank Sabotka v. Major Valcheck, aka one powerful angry white dude vs. a slightly more powerful angry white dude. Neither of ’em are afraid to pull punches. Valcheck swings first, via parking tickets (hi, Carver! you rat bastard!) and field sobriety checkpoints (Who drinks at 8 a.m.? Everyone in checkered shirts!). “You better do what’s right here,” he spits at Sabotka, before doing the same to the Union Hall floor. He didn’t like Sabotka’s reply:”What’s right is for you to..come down here like a decent human being and ask a common courtesy.” He launches into a diatribe of socially-based insults that hurts Valcheck who, in turn, meets with a friend in real estate, and then (the ever-joyous) Ervin Burrell, now acting commissioner of the district.
A couple things: first, if Sabotka wasn’t showing so much money, would Valcheck be so hell-bent task-force-ing? Or would he let it go? Same with Avon and Wee-Bey: if Tilghman wasn’t running drugs into prison, would they pursue him as a target, or let him slide? I wonder if, without the bait, these fish would still bite.
Second, a lovely – if somewhat trippy – shot opens Valcheck’s visit with real estate friend Krawcyyk, framing them in a reflection on a glass table. Tabletop: a model of “The Grainery” (see above), a new condominium complex slated for the shore. This shot implies a complicity by the police/city in allowing the gentrification and takeover of blue-collar territory. It’s underscored and mirrored by Valchek, at scene’s end, stopping, looking at the model, and picking up a sailboat in his hand. They really are the ones in power here, and Valchek is not one you wanna piss off. I’m actively stunned by how butt-hurt he is over the damn stained-glass window.
Valchek gets his task force, and gives them a hilariously dramatic speech that sounds like it’s ripped from Patton or Braveheart; he’s unaware that it’s being delivered to a bunch of humps, among them one of our favorite drunk cops from Season One. Rawls didn’t put much into hand-picking this crew, but Valchek doesn’t know that yet, and I wouldn’t want to be around when he finds out.
When it comes to pissing people off, is there anyone better than Jimmy McNulty? “You’re not the run-of-the-mill asshole, are you Jimmy? You the special kind of asshole,” Bunk laughs, over booze and crabs fresh from the Chesapeake. The duo blanket the table in newspapers, and Jimmy catches a headline that sends him to the port (or was it starboard?). Upon arrival, he can’t tie a knot to save his life, but he’s that’s because he’s got other things on his mind, and all their names are Jane Doe. After finding the stowaways’ breathing vent intentionally sealed, he signs, seals and delivers another 13 Jane Doe cases in the direction of Major Rawls (“This is about fucking over your boss?” Russell, rightfully, queries). Rawls fights – and fails – to move the cases outside of his unit, and they end up on Bunk and Freeman’s desk. Shitty for them, fantastic for us. I can’t wait to see more of this pairing; maybe Bunk can roll a box of mini-Cubans to go alongside Lester’s dollhouse furniture.
This week’s installment of McNulty-is-an-Asshole also sees him downing 14 shots (one for each “member of the deer family”) and waking up still-drunk in Deidre’s bed again. When she asks him what they are, he musters up “…good together,” before mumbling about getting back with his ex-wife “for the kids and all” and demanding aspirin. Deidre cries in the next room – something we haven’t seen her do before – but mostly this scene elicits an “are you serious, Jimmy?” He seems worse this season than last, but it’s still early, and maybe there are some bunk-bed building moments on the way.
When it’s unclear who’s being chased, and who is doing the chasing, a chase scene is hard to get right. We kind of recognize Sergei from the last episode (though more likely we remember him as “that guy they kept calling Boris”) and the character aboard the Atlantic Light I believe is the Greeks’ “guy” they were referring to earlier in the episode (but I’m not 100% sure). Either way, they catch him after some night-drive choreography, and a complicit cop (I wonder if he’ll come back if there’s a case built against the Greeks?), but the real stinger here is our real introduction to The Greek.
The Greek is aging, hunched, slow, methodical, a polyglot, and even sounds friendly when he says “Talk to me, friend”; he’s not your run-of-the-mill mob boss. But his superficial kindness belies a cutthroat cruelty, and his “No fingerprints; no face,” order is a chilling one. But now we know: the girls on the ship were, as suspected, “girls”, and after 13 of them saw McNulty’s Jane Doe roughed up and killed by an Atlantic Light’s crewma, they were all bound for extermination. “Lots of blood,” says the Greek, watching his latest victim bleed out. Lots. But, if the unforgiving and violent men of Baltimore have anything to say about it, than this Turk’s blood is just a ripple in the stream. And it’s finally beginning to flow.
- No Omar yet, but Bunk is still pressing McNulty: “show me some love, Jimmy”
- Tom Waits’ rendition of his own “Down in the Hole” has the gritty working man’s oomph that feels suitable for this season, and his guitar work is great
- I didn’t get to Ziggy Sabotka who’s desperately trying to make a buck running drugs (and failing to, mostly b/c he’s incompetent). He’s exactly the type Herc was teasing in the season opener.
- Am I the only one deeply annoyed by his character? Previous commentary says he’s a polarizing one. I don’t love to hate him at all; I just hate him. Maybe it’s an acting job done well.
- Also, he’s basically the Fredo of the family! You can almost hear him saying “I’m smaht!” every time he isn’t making an ass of himself
- Port Auth. Officer Russell is a Texan, if her desktop mug has anything to say for it (right next to a box of ‘Salt Water Taffy’ for the Port Auth. copper)
- It’s nice to have a female cop on the show (in place of Kima, for now); hopefully Russell sticks around for a bit
- I love Bey and his fish. He “needs a scorecard” to even count the murders done by “his lethal ass”, but he has a fish calendar on his wall, and him being too upset to eat Avon’s KFC is funnier when you remember him ordering food from the interrogation room, while confessing murders, last season. All the books on his nightstand are fish-related. Among them: “The Diseases of Aquarium Fish”. Wonderful. And a nice rhyme with the humor of Dee’s ‘almost execution’ last season.
- It’s honestly exhausting writing some of these recaps. They’re just so packed with information, and you can barely leave out ANY scenes! It’s staggering how well these writers juggle storylines.
- And honestly, if the variety is tough, it’s also a blast. There are few shows in recent memory that do so little hand-holding
- I almost asked why his name was ‘Horseface’…but then I thought about it and, well…it’s not not right, right?
- It’s nice to see Carv again – although he’s complaining about the chain-of-command that he himself acquiesced to last season. Does it say more about him, or about Herc that the latter is so much more lovable at this point?
- Some things on Deidre’s bookshelf: “Power of 1”, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff”, “Never,ever,ever Give Up”, “Germany, 1866-1945”, a book by Roger Ebert and, hilariously now, the Cliffnotes for “Using Your First PC”
- Raw eggs and beer? Really?